Yi Lei published her poem 'A Single Woman's Bedroom' in 1987, when cohabitation before marriage was a punishable crime in China. She was met with major critical acclaim—and with outrage—for her frank embrace of women's erotic desire and her unabashed critique of oppressive law. This posthumously published collection was translated by former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi.
An anthology of translations by the American poet Tracy K. Smith and the Chinese-born academic Changtai Bi, presented alongside Yi Lei’s original texts, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree reads like one long, insistent song of the self ... Yi Lei’s independent spirit collides with her interrogation of the very idea of personhood ... The poet’s gaze is so steadfastly inward that it’s surprising when, at the end of each section, she addresses a largely undescribed lover who has for whatever reason declined to come and live with her, a refrain made all the more resonant by the knowledge that cohabitation out of wedlock was illegal in China at the time ... Poets who operate primarily in a confessional mode tend to mine and ravage their psyches; few make a virtue of treating their minds as treasure, and it’s thrilling to encounter the ferocity with which Yi Lei protects hers ... When Yi Lei allows herself to surrender to pleasure, the results are frequently ecstatic, and her erotic verse is among the most vivid—and genuinely sexy—in modern Chinese literature ... Still, it’s unfortunate that the always-fraught issue of translation will be distracting for any reader, like myself, who is proficient enough in both languages to recognize the glaring chasms in style, tone, and content ... In many instances throughout the book, phrases, images, and metaphors that Smith and Bi could have brought into English with relative ease are needlessly contorted or jettisoned altogether, while elements that do not exist in the less flowery originals are allowed to proliferate like weeds ... I emerged from My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree in a state of confusion, grateful for having been introduced to Yi Lei’s intoxicating voice and for Smith’s undeniably supple musicality, but concerned about the false conclusions that English-only readers will draw from these willfully unfaithful renditions.
Yi Lei died in 2018, but in My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems Yi Lei, assisted by the thoughtful, expansive translation efforts of Changtai Bi and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, offers in her absence what is, quite simply, one of the finest collections of poetry released in the last five years ... here Yi announces, immodestly and containing multitudes, that her very existence is a form of protest ... here Yi Lei has the unmistakable timbre of Tracy K. Smith, one of the finest artisans of her mother tongue the nation has ever produced. One suspects that Yi Lei and Tracy Smith are both even better for it ... Smith owns, and embraces, these loving digressions: sometimes the best way to love something is to hold it in your sweet imagination, and she gifts into the work the wealth of her own experience ... a smooth, seamless, and beautiful text that feels almost conversational, both with Yi Lei and with her many tributaries, called to service by both author and translator ... It is superb.
Thanks to the efforts of Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, English-speaking readers can appreciate the richness of Yi Lei’s bilingual collection ... Smith’s poetic translation produced interesting and often unexpected outcomes ... With such a powerful collaboration of poetic talents working on this astonishing collection , Yi Lei’s name cannot help but grow wide like a tree.